Review: Die Münzen der Ptolemäer

Hans-Christoph Noeske. Die Münzen der Ptolemäer. Frankfurt am Main: Historisches Museum, 2000. 189 pp., 73 b/w plates. Pb. ISBN 3-89282-038-4.

This unassuming little (17cm x 21cm) paperback volume, produced by the Historisches Museum Frankfurt am Main (hereafter HMF), is packed from start to finish with informative text and high quality photographs of Ptolemaic coins. Although the title might lead the reader to imagine that the book is a general study of the coinage issued by the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt (323-30 B.C.), it is in fact a full catalog of the Ptolemaic coin collection formed by the well-known German zoologist and explorer, Eduard Rüppell, in the 19th century and which now resides in the HMF.

The text is comprised of three brief essays (pp. 8-30) designed to introduce the reader to the collection described in the catalog (pp. 32-181) that forms the bulk of the book. The first essay (pp. 8-11), entitled “Die Rüppell-Medaille und Goethe,” and written by Wolfgang Klausewitz, presents an overview of Rüppell’s life and his major expeditions to Northeast Africa, Ethiopia, and Arabia (1822-27 and 1830-1833) as well as his relationship with J.W. von Goethe, who was also a collector of coins and medals. Goethe was a motivating force behind the production of a medal in gold, silver and bronze to commemorate Rüppell’s achievements.

The second essay (pp. 12-19), by Klaus Bringmann, deals with the subject of “Die Ptolemäer. Eine makedonische Dynastie in Ägypten,” and gives a brief history of the Ptolemies from the appointment of Ptolemy I Soter as satrap of Egypt on June 13, 323 B.C. to the suicide of Cleopatra VII on August 1, 30 B.C. Along with the political history, the author also touches on the economic and cultural factors that affected the development of the Ptolemaic kingdom. A photograph of two beautiful gold seals depicting Ptolemy VI as both a diademed Macedonian king and as a crowned Egyptian pharaoh (p. 17) eloquently illustrates the two sides of Ptolemaic kingship and culture.

Hans-Christoph Noeske (hereafter N.), the site numismatist for the Elephantine excavations in Upper Egypt, provides the final essay (pp. 20-25), “Bemerkungen zur ptolemäischen Geldgeschichte,” to introduce the reader to developments in the Ptolemaic monetary system, which, unlike most of the Hellenistic superpowers changed from the Attic tetradrachm standard (c. 17.20g) popularized by Alexander the Great to a lower so-called Ptolemaic standard, with a tetradrachm weighing about 14.25g. The author shows that the weight reduction took place in two increments of 9% during the early reign of Ptolemy I. The first reduction occurred around 310 when Ptolemy adopted a “reduced Attic standard” of 15.70g for his Alexander in elephant headdress/Athena Promachos type tetradrachms and the second around 305, when he claimed the royal title and placed his own portrait and the dynastic eagle emblem on the coinage. This development is graphically illustrated in a table on pp. 22-23. The author also discusses the lack of natural silver sources in Egypt, which contributed to the widespread use of bronze coinage within the borders of the country and the decline of precious metal content in the silver coinage beginning in the late second century B.C.

The catalog (pp. 32-181) follows the standard Sylloge format, with textual descriptions on the left page with photographs of the coins described on the facing page. Also in keeping with the Sylloge style are the enlarged illustrations of the various monograms (p. 32) that appear on coins in the collection keyed to numbers used in the text. The descriptions are thorough and include the details of weight, diameter, die axis and HMF inventory numbers as well as references to both Svoronos and SNG Cop. Egypt. A useful concordance of the inventory numbers with the catalog and reference numbers, as well as the monogram numbers with the inventory numbers (pp. 182-189) complements the catalog.

It is difficult to say enough about the superb black-and-white plates used to illustrate the coins. The photography is excellent throughout and the lighting has been used to fullest effect in order to pull the details of type and legend out of the more heavily worn bronzes.

While most of the material illustrated and described in the catalog is not particularly rare, there are a few surprises, such as no. 189, a previously unpublished tetradrachm of the 14th year of Ptolemy V from Kition and no. 298, a large Cypriote bronze of Ptolemy VIII, with a new countermark. N. suggests that the countermark may have been applied under Ptolemy IX who had the cult name, Soter.

In addition to Alexandria, all of the major Cypriote and Phoenician mints, as well as the mint of Cyrene, are represented in the catalog. However, the collection lacks coins produced at the less prolific Phoenician and Palestinian mints of Akko-Ptolemais, Ascalon, Tripolis, Byblus, Berytus and Dora. Likewise, no coins struck by the mints of Asia Minor appear to have been collected by Rüppell, although his collection contains a tetradrachm (no. 136) believed to have been issued by Thracian Ainos for Ptolemy III, probably in the context of the Third Syrian War (246-241 B.C.).

An interesting feature of the collection is the relatively large number of early (Ptolemy I-Ptolemy II) tetradrachms bearing bankers’ marks and Greek graffiti (nos. 1, 4-5-7, 14, 16, 20, 24-25, 27-29, 32, 40, 44, 46, 50, 77, 80, 83, 84, 88-89, 92, 94, 97, 104-105, 108, 111), the latter apparently representing the names of individuals who had owned the coins in antiquity. The frequency with which graffiti letters appear suggests that the coins so marked may have originally been part of the same hoard.

Besides the official Ptolemaic issues, the Rüppell collection also contains an interesting group of pseudo-Ptolemaic tetradrachms and didrachms (nos. 395-406) produced by Aradus in the 2nd century B.C. Three large (33-34 mm) Seleucid bronzes (nos. 238-240) depicting Zeus-Serapis and an eagle struck by Antiochus IV Epiphanes in connection with his brief occupation of Egypt in 170/169-169/8 B.C. are also included in the catalog. Unfortunately these coins are misdescribed in the text as having been produced in “Alexandria (oder Pelusion?),” when in fact an Antiochene origin for the series had already been established by E.T. Newell (SMA pp. 26-27) in 1918 and defended again in 1963 by O. Mørkholm, Studies in the Coinage of Antiochus IV of Syria (Copenhagen, 1963), pp. 20-23. Indeed, even SNG Cop. Syria, which is cited as a reference for the Rüppell coins, adheres to the widely accepted view that they were struck at the Antioch mint. Presumably the erroneous description crept in through an uncritical reading of Svoronos.

A few other misattributions have made their way into the catalog, such as no. 77, a tetradrachm attributed to the 23rd year of Ptolemy II at the mint of Ioppe, which Mørkholm reattributed to Ptolemy IV in 1980. This error, like that concerning the Seleucid coins, is a little surprising since the article (“A Group of Ptolemaic Coins from Phoenicia and Palestine,” INJ 4 (1980), nos. 1-2) in which Mørkholm reattributed this type appears in N.’s numismatic bibliography (pp. 27-30).

Less surprising is the misattribution of a series of bronzes with the cult title Euergetes, struck under Ptolemy VIII. Following SNG Cop. Egypt, N. attributes them to an uncertain Cypriote mint although the excavations at Cyrene make it fairly certain that the coins were actually struck in the Libyan city. Apparently N. was unaware of this reattribution presented by T.V. Buttrey (“The Coins,” in D. White, ed., The Extramural Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone at Cyrene, Libya. Final Reports VI, University Museum Monograph 97 (Philadelphia, 1997), nos. 281-350 and pp. 43-45), since his article is not given in the bibliography.

Despite these several oversights, Die Münzen der Ptolemäer is a quality production, worthy of a place in any Ptolemaic numismatic library. It is also an excellent model for the publication of smaller historic collections in museum cabinets. We hope to see further volumes of this type and caliber in future.

—Oliver D. Hoover